November 10, 2007

John MacDonald on Writing

I am indebted to John MacDonald for his following introduction to Stephen King's collection of short stories entitled, Night Shift. As MacDonald himself writes of Stephen King, "I am entitled to hate him a little bit for this"; I wish I had written these words myself. Bless the man for finding words to many of writers' struggles and insecurities and frustrations when those battles are brushed off as being an easy way to make a living. Grrr.

"I am often given the big smiling handshake at parties (which I avoid attending whever possible) by someone who then, with an air of gleeful conspiracy, will say, 'You know, I've always wanted to write.'

I used to try to be polite.

These days I reply with the same jubilant excitement, 'You know, I've always wanted to be a brain surgeon.'

They look puzzled. It doesn't matter. There are a lot of puzzled people wandering around lately.

If you want to write, you write.

The only way to learn to write is by writing. And that would not be a useful approach to brain surgery.

Stephen King always wanted to write and he writes.

So he wrote Carrie and 'Salem's Lot and The Shining, and the good short stories you can read in this book, and a stupendous number of other stories and books and fragments and poems and essays and other unclassifiable things, most of them too wrteched to ever publish.

Because that is the way it is done.

Because there is no other way to do it. Not one other way.

Compulsive diligence is almost enough. But not quite. You have to have a taste for words. Gluttony. You have to want to roll in them. You have to read millions of them written by other people.

You read everything with grinding envy or a weary contempt.

You save the most contempt for the people who conceal ineptitude with long words, Germanic sentence structure, obtrusive symbols, and no sense of story, pace, or character.

Then you have to start knowing yourself so well that you begin to know other people. A piece of us is in every person we can ever meet.

Okay, then. Stupendous diligence, plus word-love, plus empathy, and out of that can come, painfully, some objectivity.

Never total objectivity.

At this frangible moment in time I am typing these words on my blue machine, seven lines down from the top of my page two of this introduction, knowing clearly the flavor and meaning I am hunting for, but not at all certain I am getting it.

Having been around twice as long as Stephen King, I have a little more objectivity about my work than he has about his.

It comes so painfully and so slowly.

You send books out into the world and it is very hard to shuck them out of the spirit. They are tangled children, trying to make their way in spite of the handicaps you have imposed on them. I would give a pretty to get them all back home and take one last good swing at every one of them. Page by page. Digging and cleaning, brushing and furbishing. Tidying up.

Stephen King is a far, far better writer at thirty than I was at thirty, or at forty.

I am entitled to hate him a little bit for this.

And I think I know of a dozen demons hiding in the bushes where his path leads, and even if I had a way to warn him, it would do no good. He whips them or they whip him.

It is exactly that simple.

Are we all together so far?

Diligence, word-lust, empathy equal growing objectivity and then what?

Story. Story. Dammit, story!

Story is something happening to someone you have been led to care about. It can happen in any dimension--physical, mental, spiritual--and in combinations of those dimensions.

Without author intrusion.

Author intrusion is: 'My God, Mama, look how nice I'm writing!'

Another kind of intrusion is grotesquerie. Here is one of my favorite, culled from a Big Best Seller of yesteryear: 'His eyes slid down the front of her dress.'

Author intrusion is a phrase so inept the reader suddenly realizes he is reading, and he back out of the story. He is shocked back out of the story.

Another author intrusion is a mini-lecture embedded in the story. This is one of my most grievous failing.

An image can be neatly done, be unexpected, and not break the spell. In a story in this book called 'Trucks,' Stephen King is writing about a tense scene of waiting in a truck stop, describing the people: 'He was a salesman and he kept his display bag close to him, like a pet dog that had gone to sleep.

I find that neat.

In another story he demonstrates his good ear, the ring of exactness and truth he can give dialogue. A man and his wife are on a long trip. They are traveling a back road. She says: 'Yes, Burt, I know we're in Nebraska, Burt. But where the hell are we?' He says: 'You've got the road atlas. Look it up. Or can't you read?'

Nice. It looks so simple. Just like brain surgery. The knife has an edge. You hold it so. And cut.

Now at risk of being an iconoclast I will say that I do not give a diddly-whoop what Stephen King chooses as an area in which to write. The fact that he presently enjoys writing in the field of spooks and spells and slitherings in the cellar is to me the least important and useful fact about the man anyone can relate.

There are a lot of slitherings in here, and there is a maddened pressing machine that haunts me, as it will you, and there are enough persuasively evil children to fill Disney World on any Sunday in February, but the main thing is story.

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